Minerva approaches Arachne, her rival in the art of weaving. Disguised as an old woman, Minerva advises Arachne to ask Minerva for forgiveness. When Arachne will not comply, Minerva drops the disguise and upbraids Arachne. They compete. Minerva fashions a portrait that glorifies the gods in general and herself in particular. Her tapestry depicts the Olympian gods, her victory over Neptune, and four scenes of the gods conquering humans and turning them into animals. Arachne creates a flawless portrait of gods raping and deceiving humans. Minerva is so enraged by Arachne’s skill that she begins to beat her. Unable to endure such treatment, Arachne hangs herself, and Minerva transforms her into a spider.
When they hear of Arachne’s fate, people know they should revere the gods. However, a woman named Niobe does not feel inferior to the gods. She has a great husband, Amphion, a distinguished lineage, a large kingdom, and many children. Tiresias’s daughter, Manto, tells Niobe to worship the goddess Latona and her two children, Apollo and Diana. Niobe ignores the advice and mocks her people for listening to Manto. She even wonders why people do not worship her. Latona is outraged. With her children, she causes disaster after disaster to strike Niobe’s family. Seven of Niobe’s sons and seven of her daughters are killed, she turns into tears, and fear of Latona spreads.
Tereus, the tyrant from Thrace, enters the narrative. He liberates Athens from barbarians and marries Procne, the daughter of the king of Athens, Pandion. The marriage is ill-fated. Juno, Hymenaeus, and the Graces do not attend the wedding. After five years of marriage, Procne asks Tereus for permission to see her sister, Philomela. Tereus sets sail for Athens to fetch Philomela. As soon as he sees Philomela, lust grips him. Back in Thrace, he repeatedly rapes her and hacks off her tongue to prohibit her from speaking. Philomela weaves a portrait of Tereus’s crime onto cloth and sends it to Procne. To get revenge, Procne slays Itys, her only child with Tereus, and serves him to Tereus as a meal. Procne and Philomela tell Tereus that he has eaten his son, and Tereus goes mad. He wants to kill the sisters, but they escape by turning into birds. Tereus, too, becomes a bird.
The contest between Minerva and Arachne is not only a clash between two artists but also a clash between two entirely different perspectives. Minerva, a goddess, has a divine perspective. Her tapestry glorifies the Olympian gods’ majesty and their ability to punish anyone who crosses them. The symmetry of Minerva’s tapestry, with its centerpiece, four corner scenes, and border, reflects her conviction that the universe is a place of balance and order. Arachne, a human, creates a tapestry that tells an entirely different story. There is no order, balance, or tidy symmetry in her work. It consists entirely of images of deception and rape. In the twenty-four lines Ovid takes to describe her creation, twenty-one rapes occur. Jupiter is responsible for nine, Neptune for six, Apollo for four, Bacchus and Saturn for one each. According to Arachne, the universe is a place of violence and horror. Ovid does not suggest that one tapestry or worldview triumphs. Arachne’s work is flawless. However, Minerva hectors her mercilessly, until she commits suicide. Neither of the women can claim complete victory. Both of their perspectives are born out: Minerva punishes a mortal, as she thinks is the gods’ right, and Arachne is tormented, as she thinks humans always are.
With the story of Niobe, Ovid returns to the theme of divine vengeance. By placing Niobe’s saga after Arachne’s contest with Minerva, Ovid invites us to compare the two women. They could hardly be more different. Arachne is a woman from a humble background who makes a name for herself with her talent for weaving; Niobe is a woman of the highest social standing whose reputation rests on wealth, lineage, and family. Arachne is a woman of consummate skill and artistry; Niobe is a woman of little or no skill. Arachne is challenged and provoked by the goddess Minerva; Niobe challenges and provokes the goddess Latona. With these contrasts, Ovid stresses the innocence of Arachne and the unjustness of her fate.
The story of Tereus emphasizes art’s power to help people transcend even the worst difficulties. The tale of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela is one of the bloodiest and most grotesque in all of the Metamorphoses. To the familiar stew of deception, rape, and mutilation, it adds the murder of a child and cannibalism. These unspeakable acts are the more horrifying because they take place not between strangers but within one family. The most intimate bonds—between husband and wife, sister and sister, man and sister-in-law, mother and son, and father and son—are broken. Yet even in this unremittingly horrifying set of circumstances, art helps. When Philomela loses the ability to speak, she manages to communicate via art. Her artistic endeavors literally help her escape by freeing her from her prison. This feat suggests art’s power to metaphorically help people who are suffering by giving them the consolation of self-expression.